Ms. Reed had taught long enough to know that the success of a group project depended in large measure on assigning at least one high achiever to the group. Consequently, Jennifer’s group was composed of two “average” students, one low achiever, and Jennifer. The assignment was to “research” the culture of a country and to make an oral presentation to the class. In addition, each group was to prepare a food from their country to share. Jennifer’s country was England.
Jennifer greeted the project with dismay. By 5th grade, she knew exactly what lay before her for the next three weeks. She understood the system and her role in it, as did the other three group members. And, true to form, she fretted when the others didn’t do their parts, knowing intuitively that the teacher (and the other group members) tacitly expected that Jennifer would make sure the group project was a success.
The night before the project was due, Jennifer sat crying in her room. Before her, on her desk, lay scraps of her group’s work. Her job was to put everything together into a report, make a poster, and then prepare a traditional English dish. It was already 9 p.m.
At that point she turned to her mother, a product of the same system.
Together they organized the task. Jennifer dictated the report, part fact and part fiction, and her mother typed it into the computer. Jennifer made the poster while her mother baked biscuits, which they were going to call “scones.”
The following day Jennifer and her group read the report to the class and handed out the biscuits. The teacher was pleased, everyone in the group got an A, and the charade was complete.
The following year, when Jennifer’s sister moved into 5th grade with the same teacher, she received the same assignment. Rebecca, ever the more pragmatic, came home the day groups were assigned and made her poster. “Come to Sensuous Switzerland,” the poster said, “home of fine watches, Alpine skiing, and cheese.” Her dish was Swiss chocolate candy, which she bought. She wrote her report as if it were a short story. She, too, earned an A for her group.
To be sure, neither child demonstrated any newly acquired knowledge of other cultures whatsoever. What they did demonstrate beyond any doubt, however, was a thorough understanding of the culture of the classroom and of “what the teacher wanted.” Each was rightfully awarded an A according to the real rubric of the assignment.
Another parent shared a similar experience she had with her 7th-grade son. He had asked her to review with him a study sheet on the Civil War in preparation for a test the next day.
“What were the five causes of the Civil War?” she read from the paper.
Her son ticked them off, listing “tax inequities” as one of them.
“What does ‘tax inequities’ mean?” she asked him.
He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t have to know what they mean; we just have to know what they are,” he explained.
Like Jennifer and her sister, he knew the rules of the game. Whether the information he was memorizing was useless in terms of actual knowledge was not his concern.
Assessment, commonly known as “grades,” continues to carry with it a game-like quality in many schools. Consider the following variances of the game embedded in school cultures across the country:
You have to have all your homework in before you can take your final in June. Even if it’s from last October. And you get a zero for it anyway.
Late homework is a zero. If you don’t do it at all it’s a double zero.
You can retake a test if you fail or want to better your mark. But the second test will be much more difficult than the first.
Your final grade is based on three times your class average plus your homework grade divided by four plus your last test, which is weighted twice.
Small wonder that some students fail to see the relationship between grades and achievement. One might argue that the grading problem is merely symptomatic of a system that is, for the most part, still unclear about what students need to know for success in today’s world. But even when educators identify planning, problem-solving, communicating, or working effectively with others as essential for today’s graduate, they are skills that do not readily lend themselves to numerical or letter-grade assessments. If the old adage that “what gets measured gets taught” is true, perhaps we would do well to focus our efforts on how to measure these abilities rather than on how to improve students’ test scores on irrelevant information that is convenient to grade.
When assessment is not a game, but an evaluation of skills and knowledge, student and teacher may agree beforehand on what the student needs to be able to demonstrate, how the demonstration will be judged, and who will do the judging. When it is not a game, both student and teacher clearly understand at the outset what specific criteria will need to be met for a demonstration to be judged “outstanding,” “competent,” or “not acceptable.” For example, a student and teacher might agree that good communication skills are essential for success in life. To that end, the student selects a task that will force him to develop reading, writing, editing, and speaking skills. When he completes the task, he will explain what he has done and what he has learned by exhibiting the product of his work.
In such an educational setting, a student chose to study the attack on Pearl Harbor, at which his grandfather had been present. The student set about creating an interdisciplinary project which included a model of the harbor and the ship-dockage points. He wrote a paper on the events that led up to the attack. He interviewed his grandfather, watched a documentary of the attack by himself, then watched it again with his grandparent. He intercut the interview with his grandfather with documentary footage to produce his own video. He summarized and gave his opinion of what he learned. He presented the product of his learning not only to his teachers, but also to his parents and others who afterward SAT down with him to discuss the learning that had taken place and what “grade” it would deserve based on a rubric that had been jointly established before the project was begun.
This particular student is one of approximately 100 students enrolled in the Venture Project, a school-within-a-school in Carthage, a large rural district in upstate New York. Venture offers no common schedule and no traditional classroom lectures nor assignments. Students arrange times with instructors or experts in the field and access other resources as needed. Demonstrations are judged by specific “indicators of success” developed by a committee of district staff members, higher-education faculty, local community members, and local business people.
Students work as individuals, groups, and classes to complete four major exhibitions every year. Parents participate in the discussion of their child’s learning and evaluation. Students are required to complete community-service projects, job-shadowing experiences, and internships, so that they are constantly aware of the skills necessary for success in the workplace, not just in school.
From its inception, Venture has not been without its difficulties, not the least of which are staff members outside the program who are concerned about its eventual impact on traditional schooling. Exhibitions of skills and knowledge are not as convenient to administer as multiple-choice tests are.
Still, when grades are a game, students have two basic choices. Some choose to cooperate and become so busy learning the rules of the game that they have little time to pursue their own interests. Others refuse to play, learning only what they want to and are often seen as recalcitrant or unmotivated. Venture students do not have to make these choices.
In the traditional system, a very small minority of children learn to make it all work. When 2nd grader Nan wanted to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, rather than pick from the trough of books the librarian had chosen for 2nd graders, her request was refused. When Nan’s father protested to the librarian, she responded, “Mr. Baker, if I let Nan pick whatever book she wants, I’d have to let all of the children do the same.” In this library, high awards at the end of the year went not to children who tried to read books beyond their years, but children who brought all their books back in a timely fashion. When Nan figured this out, she randomly took out a simple book every time her class went to the library. She kept it in her desk at school and never read it, but returned it promptly the next library day. On Saturdays she and her father visited the public library, where she could read Alice in Wonderland or whatever she wanted.
We need to think about what we are assessing, because assessment drives the system by defining what matters. The push for “national assessments” means little if what we are assessing and how we do it remain the same. When “what the teacher wants” is what the student needs for success, the game is over.
A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 1995 edition of Education Week as Games and Assessments